Review of " Power at work: Rebuilding the Australian union movement", by Michael Crosby. Federation Press, Sydney, 2005.
In later writing, Crosby has described a union-organising campaign which he considers a model as "unashamedly top-down". This book is the view from "the top" of the "organising agenda" which US, Australian, British and other unions have adopted since the late 1990s.
Crosby is a former Australian union leader who became director of the ACTU [Australian TUC] Organising Centre; then went to work for SEIU, the US union which has most pushed the "organising agenda"; and is now director of the European Organising Centre, in Amsterdam, for the US union federation of which the SEIU is part, Change to Win.
The back cover of his book carries a recommendation from Greg Combet, secretary of the ACTU until 2007 and now an Australian Labor government minister, and the text praises Jeff Lawrence, Combet's successor as ACTU secretary and leader, when the book was written, of Australia's foremost "organising-agenda" union, the Liquor, Hospitality, and Miscellaneous Union (LHMU).
At first sight socialists might want unequivocally to welcome the book's approach, and criticise Combet, Lawrence, and Andy Stern of the SEIU only or mainly for not carrying it through fully enough.
Unions should stop trying to sustain themselves in hard times by a focus on "servicing" members - offering cheap insurance, legal advice, and so on. Instead they should focus on building "power at work".
But what sort of power, built how? A closer look at Crosby's prescriptions sheds light on why the ACTU under Combet and Lawrence has performed much the same as the ACTU under Combet's right-wing predecessor Bill Kelty, and how the SEIU came to organise two or three hundred of its officials and activists to disrupt the April 2008 conference of the US rank-and-file unionists' network Labor Notes.
Crosby is clear and candid about his "organising agenda" as being driven by the top leaders of unions.
The leaders should start by increasing union dues; merging union organisations to get economies of scale in administration and servicing; and thus freeing resources to employ an army of "external" organisers who will "think about nothing else other than building the union's power in non-member workplaces".
In approaching non-union workplaces, those organisers should be cunning and tenacious. Starting with one or two contacts - maybe workers who were union members elsewhere, and have kept up their union membership on transferring to the new workplace - they should assemble a list of names and addresses of workers, and systematically visit them at home.
Once they have sufficient numbers from home visits, they should construct a "map" of the workplace, enabling them to organise and monitor a process of spreading the union message from one worker to another in each section, on each shift, and to key "opinion-formers" among the workers.
Collective union activity in the workplace should generally start with low-key actions focused on low-key demands winnable from even the nastiest employers. Bit by bit they should build up to winning union recognition.
Once the union is recognised, it should ease off the pressure, and shift organisers to new areas.
The union must not "abuse its agreement to act cooperatively by pursuing ongoing industrial action to settle disputes…" "The union office… will not normally be assessing grievances, looking for opportunities to organise and agitate workers to build power".
The aim is "to persuade employers that it is in their commercial self-interest to allow their employees to make a rational judgement about collective representation free of the intimidatory behaviour advocated by Big Business's political wing… [to] reach a mutually beneficial accommodation with employers".
Crosby cautiously distances himself a bit from the policy stated by many British unions, of "partnership" with employers and government, but shares its axioms.
Dismissing a class-struggle alternative by caricaturing it, Crosby states: "We cannot win… if we are suggesting that the endpoint of organising is the construction of a workers' soviet which will deliver edicts to management backed up by ongoing collective action… [And] workers won't tolerate a state of permanent revolution…"
Crosby wants union activists in the workplaces, but with a carefully controlled level of activism. He advises full-time union officials, when "picking" delegates [shop stewards], to avoid "the loudest", "delegates… behaving badly, table-thumping, unreasonable demands, a refusal to be constructive in sorting out workplace problems". He bases this advice on complaints from managers who, he assures us, "were not anti-union", but had been put off by loudmouth union delegates.
Unions should not fight "unfair dismissal" cases where the member's case is too shaky. Doing so uses resources which should instead be directed to organising new sites.
Once a workplace has been organised, unions should look for alternative ways for "workplace leaders" to "build the collective consciousness of the workers". He suggests "organising a blood-bank collection drive… [or] activities designed to build solidarity with workers in other countries". Another option currently pushed by one of the unions which Crosby praises, the Queensland Public Services Union, is a campaign called "Climate Connectors", which mobilises union activists to "green" workplaces by switching off unnecessary lights, economising on use of paper, turning up air-conditioning temperatures, etc.
Crosby praises the SEIU's mobilisation of its workplace activists to campaign for the Democrats in the USA in 2004, urging other unions to follow the SEIU in rewarding such activism with jackets, mobile phones, and ballyhoo.
His recommendations on unions' political activity explicitly dismiss the idea of mobilising more union activists to use the positions to which unions are entitled in the Australian Labor Party. Instead, unions should mobilise activists for electoral and political campaigns on the SEIU model, and have their leaders use the influence which that demonstrated "power" gives them with the politicians.
He emphasises education within the unions, but sees it as top-down. "The vast bulk of our 1.8 million members haven't got a clue about what is happening in their society", so it falls to the top leaders to give them that "clue".
"In the vast majority of unions", writes Crosby, "the leader has the ability to determine the future of every staff member there". His call is not to change that hierarchy but to use it more efficiently.
He recommends less election of union officials, and stricter "performance management" of the officials by the union's top leaders. As a model here he cites an Australian professional-engineers' union which hires a "chief executive" instead of electing a general secretary.
His case for fewer elections is based on three arguments. First, that election of officials makes it harder for women to get top positions, since women union officials are more likely to take years out from their union-official career to look after small children. Second, that directly-elected leaders can use their electoral mandate as a rival authority to that of elected union committees. Thirdly, that elected officials are likely to be tied to the "constituency" of workers who elected them, and thus less manoeuvrable for purposes of organising new areas.
The "organising agenda" offers more possibilities than the "servicing" approach of the late 1980s or early 1990s, but it is not a preliminary or undeveloped version of a class-struggle policy for rebuilding trade unions.
Almost all Crosby's arguments have some grain of good sense. When organising a new workplace in hostile conditions, for example, it usually is advisable to start with action on small, maybe very small, but winnable issues.
But all are warped by his "top-down" approach and orientation to "mutually-beneficial accommodation". A class-struggle approach requires more than amending Crosby's scheme in this or that detail. It requires a fundamental shift in viewpoint.
With some caricature, a Crosby-model union can be described as having five parts:
- a membership paying higher dues;
- a corps of workplace activists settled in "mutually beneficial accommodation with employers" but meanwhile keeping busy by organising among workers for blood donations, switching off unnecessary lights, etc.;
- one corps of full-time officials sitting in a call-centre dealing with members' individual grievances as efficiently as possible;
- another corps of full-time officials who are geared to "think about nothing" but recruitment in fresh workplaces, and who are constantly moved on from area to area so that they have no long-term accountability (even informal) to organised workers; and
- a union leader who can "determine the future of every staff member" and will get rid of the laggards and misfits among the officials.
It is a caricature because Crosby concedes that some bosses require not only one-off, but also repeated, pressure to nudge them into "mutually beneficial accommodation", and that unions must offer some democracy. But Crosby does want to push unions as far towards the caricature model as possible.
Missing from Crosby's vision is the idea of unions organising sustained, militant cross-industry campaigns for positive demands, responsive to and accountable to rank-and-file workers.
That sort of campaign has not been seen in the British union movement since the successful campaign in 1979 by the (right-wing) engineering unions for the 39 hour week. But it was the core of the organising strategy of the IWW in its heroic period, and is the core of what's needed now. Such a strategy would include unions employing full-time organisers, but in a very different framework.